Brawl on the Beach: The Making of an Absurdist Masterpiece
Alice Kaplan, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (2016).
In the autumn of 1938, a relatively unknown 25-year-old French writer scribbled a few sentences in his notebook. They turned out to be indelible:
“Today, Maman died. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”
As Alice Kaplan remarks about those sentences and their author in her “biography” of a breakthrough book, “It is tempting to say he unearthed them, for they landed on his page exactly as they would appear in print four years later…” They were the first five sentences, the opening lines, of Albert Camus’s debut novel, The Stranger (1942). They’re the genesis of a masterpiece, but there’s a great deal more to the making of the now classic novel that justifies Kaplan’s literary detective story, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic.
Camus (1913-1960) was a pied-noir, a Frenchman born and raised in Algeria — the North African territory governed by France from the early 19th century until its “liberation” in the 1960s. The country was juridically part of France, an advantage benefitting its settler classes, but for its indigenous Arab and other inhabitants, the colonial reality was grim. Camus, however, was not a member of the colonial ruling class. His French father, an agricultural worker, was killed at the outset of World War I at the battle of the Marne (Camus never knew him), and his mother – a partially-deaf, illiterate woman of Spanish descent, a mostly silent but central figure in the boy’s life – ensured the family’s survival, eking out a living as a cleaning woman. They lived in the proletarian Belcourt district of Algiers, the country’s eponymous capital city. Thus, as Kaplan says, Camus came of age in a world “of petits colons (small-time settlers)… at the bottom of the European hierarchy but with privileges of race and citizenship virtually unknown to the native population.”
The sun-loving, Mediterranean-swimming, athletic Albert (he was, among other things, a soccer goalkeeper for his college team) was struck at age 17 with the first of a series of bouts of tuberculosis (the treatment of which was still crude in the 1930s). Despite his illness, Camus had the good fortune to be intellectually recognized early on by family and teachers, and to come under the tutelage of writer and philosophy professor Jean Grenier at the University of Algiers.
Grenier guided the young man’s reading of Proust, and older contemporaries like Andre Gide and Andre Malraux, and supervised Albert’s writing. By his mid-twenties, Camus had published two short books of “lyrical” essays, The Right Side and The Wrong Side (1937) and Nuptials (1938); both appeared in minuscule 350-copy editions from a small, local publishing house run by a friend who had also studied with Grenier. Their total pages amount to roughly the novellette length of The Stranger, but this lyrical sub-genre, which has its sources in the writings of Nietzsche, and was given a distinctive Gallic flavour by Gide’s influential Fruits of the Earth (1897), is central to French philosophical essay writing, even to the present day.
Those early pieces by Camus have proved surprisingly durable. In them, the nascent writer first records his passionate embodiment on the beaches and in the harbour waters of Algiers, as well as the boredom of provincial Sunday afternoons in Belcourt district, or in nearby Oran, a coastal city that seems to turn its back on the voluptuous sea. Swimming in the summertime, “you notice that everybody’s skin changes at the same time from white to gold, then to brown, and at last to a tobacco hue, the final stage the body can attain in its quest for transformation… From water level, people’s bodies form a bronzed frieze against the glaring white background of the Arab town. And, as one moves into August and the sun grows stronger, the white of the houses grows more blinding and the skins take on a darker glow. How then can one keep from feeling a part of this dialogue between stone and flesh, keeping pace with the sun and the seasons?” (“Summer in Algiers,” Nuptials. I probably should note that the skin on view here seems confined to that of white Europeans, and that many Algerian beaches banned the presence of native Arabs.)
As an anonymous copy writer put it on the jacket of one of his later books, but could equally have said about the early essays, “Camus is the ultimate lyricist of the Absurd, a condition, he believed, ‘born of the confrontation between the human call and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ He wrote to fill that silence.”
Since his health barred him from the teaching professions towards which he was naturally inclined, Camus, after various odd jobs, found a niche in journalism at the left-wing, short-lived Alger-Republicain. Here, he was guided by the paper’s editor, Pascal Pia, who would remain an important friend in Camus’s life, particularly during the subsequent years of World War II. In the 1940s, with France occupied by the Nazis and partially governed by the collaborationists of Marshal Philippe Petain’s Vichy regime, Camus, through Pia’s influence, became editor of the clandestine French Resistance newspaper, Combat.
During his stint at the provincial paper in Algiers, Camus acquired the basics of journalism and tried his hand at literary criticism. He covered many courtroom trials, something that would prove central to The Stranger. In the paper’s book pages, Camus kept up with current European literature. He reviewed Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea (1938); Sartre’s subsequent book of short stories, The Wall (1939) (in English it’s known as Intimacy); and other relevant contemporary works, such as the French translation of Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine (1936).
The 25-year-old literary critic was at first somewhat patronising to the almost decade-older Sartre (1905-1980), at once sharply critical of Nausea, judging its author to be a better philosopher than novelist, yet welcoming it with a sort of pat on the head “as the first summons of an original and vigorous mind whose lessons and works to come we are impatient to see.” Camus would quickly adopt a warmer tone. Barely a half-year later, the young critic, reviewing a book of Sartre’s short stories, was enthusiastically declaring that “a great writer always brings his own world and its message. M. Sartre’s [world] brings us to nothingness, but also to lucidity,” and Camus, who had yet to embark on his fateful relationship with Sartre, hailed the “greatness and truth of this work.” (Kaplan only touches on Camus and Sartre’s mutual encounters where they’re relevant to her book. The definitive account of the entire relationship is found in Ronald Aronson’s even-handed Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It, (2004).)
In his personal life, Camus was entangled in an unsuccessful first marriage which soon ended in divorce, and a subsequent relationship with Francine Faure, a woman living in Oran, who became his second wife in 1940. Politically, he was a youthful member of the Communist Party, but broke with it during the period of the Moscow show trials over the question of the party’s position on the treatment of Algerian natives, which Camus considered too conservative. In literary terms, Camus had an active interest in theatre, as an actor, director of an amateur company, and as an apprentice playwright who was working on a play about the scandalous Roman emperor Caligula. As well, Camus made an initial attempt at writing a novel, A Happy Death, which he abandoned on the advice of his teacher, Grenier, although he was able to recycle passages from it for his published debut novel.
And now, in late 1938, as the world teetered on the cusp of World War II, Camus found himself at the beginning of various works that would become known as his “absurdist trilogy”: the play Caligula; an extended philosophical essay about the notion of the “absurd,” The Myth of Sisyphus; and a novel about “a man without qualities” (to recall the title of Robert Musil’s 1930 novel), that became L’Etranger. (In Britain, the book is titled The Outsider; in North America, it’s The Stranger – the difference is rather accidental, and connected to marketing strategies and miscommunications at the time of its English-language publication, rather than having a deeper significance.)
Alice Kaplan, a professor of French and French literature at Yale University, decided, wisely I think, that The Stranger “deserved a biography, a story of its life, connected to the life of its creator but also separate and distinct from him.” The idea of the biography of a book is a notion she picked up from Michael Gorra, who did something similar with Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady in his Portrait of a Novel (2012). Kaplan thought of herself as “looking over [Camus’s] shoulder, telling the story from his rather than my own point of view.”
The era in which Camus wrote his book is one that Kaplan knows well. Her name may ring a bell because of her memoir, French Lessons (1993), the critically-acclaimed story of how a girl from the U.S. heartland became enamoured of another language and culture. As the daughter of a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials at the end of World War II (her father died when Kaplan was a child), it’s perhaps not surprising that Kaplan’s area of academic expertise turned out to be French fascism. She’s the author of Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life (1986) and The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (2000). When Brasillach, a prominent fascist writer and editor was sentenced to death at the end of the war, Camus was one of his enemies who nonetheless signed the petition seeking clemency for the notorious collaborator. (Sartre, by the way, refused.) Both Kaplan’s memoir as well as her Brasillach biography were nominated for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, among other honours. In Looking for The Stranger, Kaplan returns to the period in which France lived under the rule of fascism.
As she notes at the outset of her search for Camus and his book, the story of Camus’s protagonist Meursault, “a man whose name contains a plunge (saut) into death (meur) is a deceptively simple one: his mother dies in an old people’s home and he travels to her funeral. When he gets back, he goes swimming with a girlfriend and takes her to the movies. He writes a letter for a friend who is a pretty rough character. He kills an Arab on a beach in Algiers. He is tried and sentenced to death, and, as the novel ends, he awaits execution. It’s not much to go on,” Kaplan admits, and yet its fascinating ambiguities have led critics to variously treat it as “a colonial allegory, an existential prayer book, an indictment of conventional morality, a study in alienation or ‘a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka.’” Kaplan sees the range of readings that it inspires as “one mark of a masterpiece.” (Given the status of Camus’s book, I take it that I can discuss plot elements in the novel without having to invoke “spoiler” warnings. Naturally, I’ll be a bit more discreet when it comes to Kaplan’s own sleuthings.)
Of the many sources of tone, structure and incidents that Kaplan traces, the crucial one is Camus’s creation of the first-person voice of Meursault, the story’s narrator, a distinctive sound already present in the initial lines Camus entered in his notebook in 1938. Its timbre is partially derived from American crime fiction of the time, a genre that captivated French intellectuals of Camus’s generation. Not for them the puzzle-boxes of British mystery writing, but rather the “hard-boiled” tones of American noir. Sartre apparently rewrote Nausea after reading Maltese Falcon-author Dashiell Hammett. For Camus the model was James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, reports Kaplan (its translation into French appeared in 1936).
“It wasn’t the storyline” – an edge-of-the-California-desert adulterous triangle that turns deadly when the proverbial handsome stranger, a drifter named Frank, shows up – “that appealed to Camus,” Kaplan tells us, “it was the way the story was told. Frank speaks right to the reader, in the first person, confessing as he waits for his punishment in the death house… The sentences were short and taut and there was no rumination, no analysis, no deep inner self, just a very ordinary American voice.” It’s a tone that perfectly fits the psychology of an Algerian Frenchman working as a clerk in a commercial enterprise, someone who doesn’t weep at his mother’s funeral, a person seemingly devoid of empathy, but who resists conforming to convention and who tenaciously hews to the truth because he can’t imagine doing otherwise.
Once Camus figured out how to tell the story, it was his experience as a courtroom journalist that would turn out to be critical to the construction of a novel in which the protagonist is tried for murder. As a reporter, Camus not only covered local murder trials involving both Frenchmen and Arabs, but the pages of Alger-Republicain also carried regular dispatches from the sensational 1939 trial-of-the-year in Paris, of German-born serial killer Eugen Weidmann, whose gruesome murders of a half-dozen people exercised a terrorizing fascination on the public.
Weidmann’s execution by guillotine, which provoked a disturbance among the crowd that witnessed it — it was said that some women dipped their handkerchiefs in Weidmann’s blood after he was decapitated – led to the authorities banning public executions, instead confining them to prison courtyards (use of the guillotine continued in France until the late 1970s). The event was significant for Camus, who later became a major proponent, along with his friend and fellow writer Arthur Koestler, of ending capital punishment. In Paris, the case attracted the attention of several other writers, including the novelist Colette, writing for Paris-Soir, and the New Yorker magazine’s Paris-based correspondent, Janet Flanner, both of whom attended the trial. Weidmann also appears in the rhapsodic opening passage of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers (1943), as one of the dark angels of Genet’s homoerotic imaginings. There’s even a film clip of Weidmann’s execution (yes, it can be accessed on YouTube).
At the centre of Camus’s The Stranger is Meursault’s unpremeditated, almost unmotivated murder of an unnamed young Arab man on an Algiers beach under the blazing mid-day sun. It’s the violent event that leads to the trial, imprisonment and impending execution of Camus’s protagonist, an ordinary man without a “deep inner self.” Kaplan’s inspired investigative instincts lead her to the actual episode that sparked Camus’s use of it for his novel.
Camus learned the story from two people involved in the incident, Raoul and Edgar Bensoussan, Jewish brothers who were part of Camus’s crowd in Oran when he was living there with his future second wife, Francine. It took place on a beach outside Oran, when Raoul got involved in a scuffle with a couple of Arab youths, one of whom pulled out a knife and slashed Raoul on the arm and face. After getting patched up by friends, Raoul, carrying a gun, went back looking for revenge. A second fight ensued, but Raoul never used the weapon. Eventually, the police intervened, one of the Arabs was detained, but Bensoussan didn’t press charges. This was the true-life kernel which Camus transformed into his book’s pivotal scene.
Part of this story is mentioned by earlier Camus biographers (among them, Olivier Todd, author of Albert Camus: A Life (1996)) who recount the incident of a brawl on the beach. But it’s Kaplan, returning to Oran at the end of her quest, who provides her own denouement to the tale in an elegant epilogue to Looking for The Stranger (the details of which I’ll refrain from spoiling).
In addition to providing an absorbing account of how Camus’s novel came together from bits of real life and his own thinking and reading (a topic of perennial interest to many readers), Kaplan also covers the story of the actual writing of the book in a bleak Paris hotel room in spring 1940; its publication in 1942 by the famed Gallimard publishing house, even as the country lay under the Nazi occupation; and how its success turned Camus into one of a handful of the major post-WWII French writers, along with Jean-Paul Sartre and his lifelong companion, Simone de Beauvoir. As well, Kaplan traces the “afterlife” of The Stranger during which it became an international multi-million copy bestseller and a classic of the school syllabus.
Finally, she tells us about a remarkable “post-colonial” literary event that occurred in the year of the centennial of Camus’s birth, in 2013, when Algerian author Kamel Daoud took up the issue of the nameless Arab victim of The Stranger in his own novel, The Meursault Investigation (2013; English tr., 2015). Kaplan meets Daoud in Oran, where he’s a columnist for a local paper, and her exploration of his novel in which Meursault’s victim finally acquires a name (“Musa”) raises a host of issues about post-colonial Algeria.
In terms of the writing of The Stranger, Pascal Pia, Camus’s non-academic mentor, came to the rescue. When Pia learned that Camus was more or less unemployed in Oran toward the end of 1939, he arranged for his protege to get a layout editing job at Paris-Soir, which brought Camus to the French capital. He arrived with the first chapter of The Stranger in hand, and in the Montmartre hotel room Pia found for him, Camus finished his novel by May 1940. Kaplan successfully conveys the exhilarating experience Camus had of writing a work that seemed to be as much something he found inside himself as a text produced in the conventional way.
The story of the book’s publication is itself a literary thriller, what with the complications of transporting manuscripts across occupied France, dealing with censors, and securing allotments of paper for publication. Again, Pascal Pia is the hero of the moment. After reading the manuscript and enthusiastically responding to Camus, it’s Pia who gets the book into Andre Malraux’s hands, who in turn passes it on to French Nobel Prize winner Roger Martin du Gard. Both of them give the work their imprimatur and, equally usefully, Malraux suggests revisions to the text, which result in Camus’s final, improved rewrite. Camus’s other mentor, Jean Grenier, also has a role in the process of reading the manuscript, although Kaplan is critical of his rather pinched encouragement, especially in comparison to Pascal Pia’s generosity of feeling.
At the same time, Pia acts as the book’s unofficial agent, contacting Jean Paulhan, an influential editor at Gaston Gallimard’s publishing house, and persuading Gallimard to publish both The Stranger, and a season later, Camus’s meditation on the absurdity of the human condition, The Myth of Sisyphus.
The book, published in May 1942, was reasonably well-received, considering wartime conditions. It garnered “mixed” but serious reviews, and went into second and third printings, selling some 10,000 or so copies in its first year. But what secured The Stranger’s place in French literature was an extraordinary essay that appeared in February 1943 in a Marseilles literary journal, Cahiers du Sud, by Jean-Paul Sartre, who had yet to meet Camus. (That encounter would occur a couple months later in Paris, when Camus introduced himself to Sartre at the opening of the latter’s play, The Flies.)
Sartre’s essay, “The Stranger Explained,” argues Kaplan, “was a turning point. The novel might have faded into the background of the literary landscape after its initial reviews, but an essay by Sartre… imposed Camus’s work on intellectual France. The attention he paid to Camus, the seriousness of his analysis, defined The Stranger as an essential contemporary novel. Once Sartre had spoken, The Stranger’s future was all but guaranteed.”
By then, Camus’s philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, had also been published, and Sartre discussed both books, including a little counterjab that suggested Camus was a better novelist than philosopher (thus paying Camus back for his earlier assessment of Sartre as more philosopher than novelist). Sartre’s own early magnum opus, Being and Nothingness (1943), was already in press and would appear that June. The important point of the essay was Sartre’s putting his definitive stamp on Camus’s novel: “The Stranger is a classical work, a work of order, written about the absurd and against the absurd.” Camus’s novel, and the author himself, was henceforth vaulted into the permanent ranks of French literature.
Two years later, with the liberation of Paris at the end of summer 1944, and the impending end of World War II, Sartre and Camus emerged into French public life as stars of the European intellectual world. “Existentialism,” the philosophy associated with both their names (although Camus resisted the labelling), was not only the dominant current in contemporary philosophy, but also became a widespread cultural craze. The cafes, cabarets, and the life- and fashion styles of its leading figures characterized the age. Camus was the author of its defining novel, as well as the activist hero of the French underground, editor-in-chief of Combat, who cut a rather glamorous figure on his own (he was frequently compared to the American movie actor Humphrey Bogart). Kaplan’s narrative of all this, from writing to fame, is lively, intelligent, and well-judged.
Sartre, Camus, and de Beauvoir (her great feminist book, The Second Sex (1948), became a founding document of the subsequent women’s movement) were celebrated both in France and during their extended post-war tours of the United States. In actuality, they had all moved on, in political literary and even personal terms, from the works and positions that established their renown. Camus was working on his very differently focused next novel, The Plague (1947), which became an international best-seller and reignited interest in The Stranger; Sartre was publishing the essays calling for “committed writing” that were gathered in his What Is Literature? (1948); and both were confronting the issues raised by the Cold War, taking sharply contrary positions that led to their eventual split and the end of the friendship. (Aronson’s Camus and Sartre covers these subsequent developments.) Camus went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 (one of the better picks by the often erratic prize committee), but his life was cut short in 1960 in an automobile accident in which he was a passenger. He was 46. His unfinished manuscript, The First Man, which was found in the smashed vehicle, was far enough along that when it was published decades later, in 1994, it was immediately recognized as a superb piece of writing.
Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger is welcome for a number of reasons beyond the intrinsic pleasure and intelligence of her reflections, the quality of her readable prose, and her explanation of a deeply engaging segment of recent literary history. If Kaplan’s book doesn’t send you back to re-reading Camus, and perhaps much else, then it’s failed in its purpose. This time around, in reading The Stranger again, I was struck by the precision and beauty of Camus’s writing, especially his portrait of Meursault sitting on his balcony, watching a slow Sunday afternoon in Algiers, a couple of days after the death of his mother.
“My room looks out onto the main street of the suburb,” Meursault tells us. “It was a beautiful afternoon. And yet the pavements were grimy, and the few people that were about were all in a hurry.” He people-watches families and then the local lads going by, “hair greased back, red ties, tight-fitting jackets with embroidered handkerchiefs in their top pockets and square-toed shoes. I thought they must be heading for the cinemas in the town-centre. That was why they were leaving so early and hurrying to catch a tram, laughing noisily as they went.
“After that the street gradually became deserted. The shows had all started, I suppose. Only the shopkeepers and the cars remained. The sky was clear but dull above the fig-trees which line the street. The tobacconist opposite brought a chair out onto the pavement, placed it in front of his door and sat astride it, with his arms resting on the back. The trams, which had been cram-full a few minutes before were now almost empty. In the little café Chez Pierrot, next door to the tobacconist’s, the waiter was sweeping up the sawdust, and the place was deserted.” Camus’s exactitude is as marvellous as that of passages from the great, long poem, “The Tobacconist,” by Camus’s older Portuguese contemporary, Fernando Pessoa. In Lisbon, Pessoa too, is watching the street:
Today I’m torn between the loyalty I owe
To the outward reality of the Tobacco Shop across the street
And to the inward reality of my feeling that everything’s a dream.
Pessoa is engrossed by “the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings, / With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,/
With Destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.” Much later in the poem, he idly watches a customer go into the tobacco shop, and then, interrupting his metaphysical speculations,
The man has come out of the Tobacco Shop (putting change into his pocket?).
Ah, I know him: it’s unmetaphysical Esteves.
(The Tobacco Shop Owner has come to the door.)
As if by divine instinct, Esteves turns around and sees me.
He waves hello, I shout back “Hello, Esteves!” and the universe
Falls back into place without ideals or hopes, and the Owner of the Tobacco Shop
(tr. Richard Zenith)
In evoking Camus’s book so poignantly, Kaplan’s readers (the fabled “happy few”) return not only to Camus, but follow the thread into the literary labyrinth, into the weaving of texts that the activity of reading ultimately is. In her prologue, Kaplan begins by saying, “Reading The Stranger is a rite of passage. People all over the world connect the book to their coming of age, to grappling with the toughest questions of existence.” I wonder if that’s still true. Reading The Stranger used to be a rite of passages in many cultures in the mid-20th century, but perhaps it is less so today when much reading, especially by the young, has been displaced by our distracting digital devices.
Kaplan’s book also helpfully revives attention to existentialist thinking itself, which was not only one of the most interesting philosophical approaches of the last century, but seems, oddly, relevant once more. Kaplan’s biography of The Stranger follows on another excellent book, published earlier this year, Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others (2016). As reviewer Edward Mendelson writes, “The apricot cocktails in her subtitle and her sometimes breezy tone… seem to promise an undemanding, gossipy romp. Instead, she judges and explains the ways in which each writer responded to the moral and political crises of the 1930s and after, and her book asks demanding questions about the ways in which people think about themselves and their relations with others.” (Edward Mendelson, “At the Existentialist Café,” New York Times, Apr. 13, 2016.)
Perhaps it’s the current gruelling U.S. presidential campaign and the recognitions it’s provoked of the dumbing-down and widespread ignorance evident in contemporary American discourse that stirs my thought here. Eventually the practical dust of present politics will settle (for good or ill), and we’ll still be faced with the metaphysical and real absurdities that Camus, Sartre and company pondered three-quarters of a century ago. We could do worse than finding the tough, deep questions of existentialism attractive once more.